The history of the American West is a history of conflict and exploitation, as settlers from Mexico and the former American colonies pushed farther and farther into lands that were traditionally the homes of native peoples. Not seen as a single war, these conflicts are instead a seemingly endless array of skirmishes, slaughters, and atrocities—among them, the series of armed battles which took place between roughly 1846 and 1886, often known as the Apache Wars.
Both the beginning and ending of the Apache Wars are open to debate. Though the conflicts are often tied to the beginning of the Mexican-American War in 1846, there were previous skirmishes between settlers and members of the various Apache tribal confederations. Similarly, while the 1886 capture of Geronimo is often regarded as the end of the Apache Wars—and the larger era of “Indian Wars”— hostilities continued until as late as 1924, or even longer.
The Lead Up to the Apache Wars
Following the annexation of Texas, the United States Army began an invasion of Mexican territories in 1846, which kicked off the Mexican-American War. The war ended in 1848, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which left the United States in possession of the territory that is now Texas, California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.
Though this land previously “belonged” to Mexico and was now in the hands of the United States, much of it was land that had traditionally been the home of the various Apache peoples. Conflicts between settlers and the land’s native inhabitants had already been commonplace, but with the United States taking control of the territory, the conflicts were set to escalate.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson had signed into law the Indian Removal Act, which was described as an “exchange of lands with the Native Americans residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi.” Of course, we know today that the Indian Removal Act was part of a campaign of genocide that forced countless Native Americans from their ancestral lands and cost thousands of lives.
Under the auspices of the Indian Removal Act, the U.S. Army established forts in Apache territory in order to fight Apache war parties and force them to move to designated Indian reservations. The Apaches were often almost cartoonishly outmatched in numbers, with thousands of soldiers sometimes going up against a handful of Apache warriors. Despite this, the guerilla conflict continued for decades.
The Bascom Massacre
The Apache Wars are identified by a string of incidents and conflicts, often seemingly unrelated, but all part of a larger tapestry of American imperialism and Apache resistance. In one of the most notorious incidents, the stepson of a rancher in what is now Arizona was kidnapped by a group of Apaches in 1861. The rancher, John Ward, went to a nearby fort and demanded that the army intervene.
Lieutenant George N. Bascom took a detail to meet with the Apache leader Cochise, ultimately accusing Cochise of being involved in the kidnapping, even though some sources claim that Cochise actually offered to help find those responsible and return Ward’s stepson. Under a white flag of truce, Bascom took Cochise and his family members, including his wife and children, hostage, though the Apache leader was able to cut his way out of the tent and escape.
In an effort to negotiate the release of the army’s prisoners, Cochise and the rest of his party took several American captives, and killed the members of a passing Mexican wagon train. With Bascom unwilling to release his captives and U.S. Army reinforcements on the way, Cochise eventually abandoned attempts at negotiations and fled, killing his remaining captives. Bascom, in retaliation, hanged Cochise’s brother and nephews.
This moment, which became known as the “Bascom affair” or the “Bascom massacre,” has been described as the point at which the Apaches “transferred their hatred of the Mexicans to the Americans,” and has been cited as the beginning of the Apache Wars, in spite of the fact that conflicts had already been taking place for several years.
The American Civil War Begins
That same year, the American Civil War began. Already engaged in a string of retaliatory raids and attacks, Cochise and his father-in-law, Mangas Coloradas, agreed to an alliance to drive Mexican and American settlers out of Apache territory. At the same time, both Confederate and Union soldiers were continuing their push to remove Apaches from their land and relocate them to Indian reservations created as part of the Indian Removal Act.
By 1863, after numerous conflicts between both Confederate and Union troops, including one in which he was badly wounded, Coloradas was ready to attempt to negotiate peace. He agreed to meet with military leaders at New Mexico’s Fort McClane, where he arrived under a white flag of truce. As they had with Cochise before him, the American soldiers ignored the sanctity of the white flag, taking Coloradas into custody and then torturing and killing him while he was “trying to escape.”
The head of Mangas Coloradas was cut off and boiled, and his skull sent to the Smithsonian. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this act of treachery and mutilation only exacerbated hostilities between the Apaches and the United States Army.
The forceful removal of Apaches to reservations included destroying their crops and livestock in an attempt to push them to resettle at Fort Sumner. While some Apaches relocated to the reservation, others continued their raids, fighting back against the soldiers who were driving them from their lands. The battles continued for more than two decades, by which time Cochise was also ready to throw in the towel. He agreed to move his remaining people to a reservation in the Chiricahua Mountains.
The Death of Geronimo and the End of the Apache War
Among those who did not relocate to the reservation was Geronimo, one of the most notable fighters among the Apache forces. By 1886, the U.S. Army had deployed some 5,000 soldiers, as well as 500 Apache scouts, and thousands of civilian members of the militia to try to capture Geronimo, who was accompanied by only around 30 warriors.
In September of that year, Geronimo was cornered in Skeleton Canyon and persuaded to surrender. He died in prison more than two decades later. Geronimo’s capture is often regarded as the end of the Apache Wars, though conflicts continued for several more years. In fact, the exact date of the final raid remains disputed. Some place the end of the Apache Wars in 1924, when a war party stole horses from settlers and were later caught and arrested. Others argue that the hostilities continued until the Castle War of Yucatan in 1933. And some insist that there are still resistance groups in the mountains of the Sierra Madre to this day.